Hustling in Hanoi

Maxwell Downman considers future options after the second round of denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea falters

It is of little surprise that the Hanoi Summit ended so abruptly. The two countries’ incompatible demands made the scope for agreement near impossible. On the one side, Washington demanded that Pyongyang unilaterally give up its entire nuclear weapons programme before making any concessions. On the other, North Korea demanded that Washington lift the majority of sanctions before it would consider any substantial ‘denuclearisation step’. In many ways the negotiations epitomised a zero-sum politics: while compromise in Hanoi was lacking, accusation and recriminations began in earnest post-summit.

On March 15, Vice Minister Choe Son Hui gave the North Korean version of the summit in Pyongyang. She accused John Bolton, US National Security Advisor, of scuppering success from the outset with ‘gangster-like’ demands for North Korea to commit to complete denuclearisation. According to North Korean sources, at the summit Kim Jong-un requested that a number of the most stringent sanctions passed by the UN Security Council in 2016 and 2017 be relieved. North Korea came into the summit offering to ‘permanently and completely dismantle all the nuclear production facilities in the Yongbyon area’ for partial sanctions relief. Pyongyang believed it had already made a number of concessions and it was time for the US to give in a step-by-step negotiation. According to the North Korean line, Pyongyang had shown good faith: it had dismantled both its main nuclear site and a missile engine stand, and offered a unilateral moratorium on missile and nuclear testing.

In Washington, sanctions relief wasn’t worth considering. Given the widely held belief in the US administration that its ‘maximum pressure’ campaign has brought North Korea to the negotiating table, the idea was always going to be a non-starter and Trump walked away. The truth is that the maximum pressure campaign has not been as successful as some in the administration would believe. While North Korea has weathered varying degrees of international sanctions since the 1990s, their new-found willingness to negotiate has stemmed from their growing confidence in their nuclear deterrent, not just international pressure.

Choe Son Hui accused John Bolton (inset) of scuppering the summit’s success with ‘gangster-like’ demands
Choe Son Hui accused John Bolton (inset) of scuppering the summit’s success with ‘gangster-like’ demands
The maximum pressure campaign has not been as successful as some in the US administration would believe

In truth, movement on Yongbyon would tangibly contribute to slowing down North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. If Pyongyang shut down the reactor, spent-fuel reprocessing facility and gas centrifuge uranium enrichment facilities, this would cut off the state’s sole known plutonium production. It would slow the rate of uranium enrichment, limiting the size of its arsenal – although enrichment would continue covertly. And it would eliminate North Korea’s only known source of tritium, a necessary component for making the leap from nuclear to thermonuclear.

Washington in response doubled down and hardened its stance. Following the summit, John Bolton called North Korea’s offer to dismantle Yongbyon only a ‘limited concession’, once again calling for complete denuclearisation, including North Korea’s ballistic missile, chemical and biological weapons programme. Such lofty aspirations reveal a misunderstanding of Pyongyang’s perceived need for a strategic deterrent to the United States.

For the time being, both parties seem unwilling to budge. Following the summit, North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Long Ho said that Yongbyon was the best offer they could make ‘at the current stage’, describing it as the ‘first stage of the process’ which would continue with sanctions relief. Meanwhile in Washington, US Special Representative for North Korea Stephen Biegun rejected a step-by-step approach to negotiations, stating, ‘We are not going to do denuclearisation incrementally.’

Washington is right to be sceptical of North Korea’s intent to disarm. North Korea has gone back on promises multiple times in the past, and has shown a penchant for extracting concessions through brinkmanship since the advent of its nuclear weapons programme in the 1990s. Indeed, Kim Jong-un has shown little intent of getting rid of nuclear weapons and believes its nuclear weapons programme gives him strength in negotiations.

Since the Singapore Summit, President Trump appeared willing to play along with the delusion that North Korea might disarm in the near future, despite lacking any tangible steps. Showing up in Hanoi, his demand for complete denuclearisation must have appeared like a volte-face to North Korea. Each side saw the other as trying to hustle: Washington was not willing to consider a step-by-step process, and Pyongyang was not willing to consider complete denuclearisation.

So wither negotiations with the Hermit Kingdom? Both the US and NK have a number of options, neither of which seem very compatible.

Kim Jong-un, obviously rattled from the bust-up in Hanoi, has a number of choices. First, he can choose the time-old strategy of provocation. Indeed this seems a likely course of action; Pyongyang has already announced it is rebuilding key facilities at Sohae, its satellite launch site, and building an ICBM related site at Sanum-dong. North Korea could judge that the ongoing spectre of vertical proliferation will compel the United States to settle for less than complete denuclearisation.

Kim Jong-un has shown little intent of getting rid of nuclear weapons

Yet provocation could backfire, resulting in stronger and stricter sanctions. China, North Korea’s sole lifeline, has continually urged restraint from North Korea and any further tests would likely result in stronger UN action.

Alternatively, North Korea could change its negotiation stance and truly commit to denuclearisation. As Trump dared, they could ‘go big’. However, despite warm pleasantries between Kim Jong-un and Trump, it is extremely unlikely North Korea would take such a vast leap of faith.

Meanwhile, the United States could continue with the status quo, pursuing extra sanctions in the hope it changes the North Korean calculus down the line – the fact that North Korean negotiators focused so heavily on sanctions relief is revealing itself. Nevertheless, North Korea has been a serial sanctions evader, the porous Sino-Korean border along the Yalu means that sanctions are unlikely to change the fundamental dynamic of negotiations, and direct sanctions against North Korea are already maxed out.

Then again, the US could change tack. Rather than demand total nuclear disarmament, it could switch to a step-by-step approach. While the end goal may be complete denuclearisation, its immediate focus would be to slow the growth of Pyongyang’s nuclear programme, prevent further proliferation, as well as reduce the risks of nuclear escalation through deterrence and pursuing peace. While US policy towards Pyongyang has varied from president to president, all have been united by the belief that North Korea should give up its nuclear weapons first. A change in approach could be framed as ‘creating the environment for nuclear disarmament’ (CEND) initiative, which the US administration has promoted internationally. While it is clear that Pyongyang is not willing to give up its nuclear weapons now, it is not clear that this calculation won’t change in the future, given a changed relation.

For now, though, negotiations are held up: the prospect of further negotiations appears uncertain and both sides appear stuck in pursuing strategies reliant on threat. Diplomacy is in an incredibly vulnerable position as both sides appear intent on applying pressure to make the other budge. Yet testing each other’s resolve carries risks and provocation is an easy way to scupper success. Both sides would therefore do well to remember the benefit of restraint and flexibility in international diplomacy.


Maxwell Downman is a political researcher with the British American Security Information Council (BASIC), London’s independent disarmament and arms control think-tank. He focuses on nuclear disarmament, non-proliferation and East Asian international security

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